Army veteran, 83, finally gets his due

In medals ceremony, Texas man honored for World War II service

December 07, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FORT WORTH, Texas - T.J. Shockley, 83, of Azle, Texas, formally received his Purple Heart and Bronze Star yesterday at Naval Air Station Fort Worth.

The Purple Heart came 57 years and six months after he earned it.

In June 1945, Shockley, a young Army private, was among 137 soldiers sent to take a hill in the Battle of Okinawa. Only 17 returned.

It was Shockley's first and last battle of the war. He was blinded by a phosphorus grenade and shipped back to Hawaii. His vision returned that September, about a month after Japan surrendered.

He was sent home to Fort Worth, glad to have survived. Medals were of little concern, but later he started to wonder.

The honors came after a struggle that took longer than the war.

First, some of Shockley's records were lost when a ship sank. Others were lost in a fire at a records depot in St. Louis. Also, after 50-plus years, things tend to get misplaced.

"They claimed my records were lost. They had no record of me being in combat," Shockley said.

At one point, he had to submit to a two-hour psychological examination just to prove he was sane.

For Bob Junger, a friend and retired Air Force sergeant who led the battle to get Shockley his due, it became a mission. He spent countless hours poring over old records and bending the ears of people in Washington.

"This is well-deserved and long overdue," Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth said at the ceremony. She said later that the fight to win recognition for Shockley began during the tenure of her predecessor, Pete Geren.

Shockley, retired and living in Azle, said the Purple Heart arrived in the mail a couple of months ago. He had received the Bronze Star in 1963. It, too, came in the mail without prior notification.

The Purple Heart is awarded for wounds suffered in battle. Created by George Washington, it is the nation's oldest military decoration. The Bronze Star is awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement in battle.

Such medals are supposed to be presented at a formal ceremony, so former Pfc. Shockley was ordered to show up at the base yesterday. Navy Capt. Paul Paine, the base commander, pinned them on his chest and thanked him for his service to the country.

Shockley grew up in west Fort Worth. He graduated from Arlington Heights High School in 1938 and went to Texas A&M University on a football scholarship. A halfback, he was hurt that first season, his scholarship was withdrawn, and he enrolled at North Texas Agricultural College, now known as the University of Texas, Arlington.

The Army called him up in 1943, and he had problems from the start. First, the Army insisted that he have a first name. His given name, the one on his birth certificate, simply was "T.J." To please the Army, he said his name was "Thomas Jefferson."

Then he was assigned to the 77th Infantry Division, also known as the Statue of Liberty Division. It was a New York-based outfit, and almost all of the men were from New York.

"Here I am," he said, "a boy from Texas, and with all those Yankees, I wasn't sure who the enemy was until we got into combat."

In spring 1945, Shockley and a boat full of Yankees were en route to Okinawa, an island about 400 miles south of Japan. It turned into the bloodiest fight of the war in the Pacific Theater. U.S. casualties exceeded 38,000 wounded and 12,000 killed or missing. The Japanese lost more than 200,000 soldiers and civilians.

After the war, Shockley went to work at Consolidated Vultee, which became General Dynamics and now is Lockheed.

He retired in 1978 to a 40-acre spread in Azle. It's now 36 acres. The county took 4 acres for a road.

His wife, Wilma, died in 1990, just a few months after they celebrated their 50th anniversary. They had three children and two grandchildren. His son Jeff and daughter Gaye Ash were there for the ceremony at the Fort Worth base.

"He was a good soldier, but a better father," Ash said.

Shockley said he couldn't believe that the recognition finally occurred.

"I think it could have been done without all this trouble," he said. "But I am glad it happened now instead of after I had died. I read all the time about people getting medals after they are dead. This is fine."

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